Centenary of the First World War: Passchendaele
I“…It was the last ball of the over. The blacksmith glared at the umpire…took another reef in his belt, shook out another inch in his braces, spat on his hand…grasped the ball tightly in his colossal palm and…marched off…over the brow of the hill. At last, after a long stillness, the ground shook, the grasses waved violently, small birds arose with shrill clamours…and the blacksmith, looking more like Venus Anadyomene than ever, came thundering over the crest…it was the charge of Von Bredow’s Dragoons at Gravelotte over again.”
n writing what is probably the funniest story of an English village cricket match in his wonderful book, England, Their England, A. G. Macdonell seems to have been intoxicated with delight, his imagination seeking both absurdity and reality within a world of schoolboy fun. It was a world where to be English meant Empire, King and Country, cricket, villages and football. Macdonell had the idea for the book when sheltering with a fellow Gunner Subaltern in a bunker on Passchendaele Ridge during the battle in 1917. It would have allowed them both to forget the world of mud — mud which swallowed alive soldiers and animals alike and through which, despite appeals to stop, the British Commander, General Haig, for week after week sent his men to attack the Germans at the top of the ridge.
Below the ridge, a rough semicircle like a cup-less saucer broken in half, lies the city of Ypres. Since 1914 the Germans had been trying to come down to the middle and to take the city, while the British held on to it and the perimeter around it, known as the Ypres Salient, and stopped them. They never took Ypres.
Something had to be done. But 1917 was a year of mixed fortunes for the war effort of both sides. There was a German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line, leaving behind a belt of destruction with poisoned water supplies and ruined buildings akin to
that of Sherman’s March to the Sea in the American Civil War in 1864.
In April the Canadians had success at Vimy Ridge but immediately after that French General Nivelle fought, and lost, a disastrous and costly battle at the Chemin des Dames, which led to widespread mutinies. Then, capping these events, the Germans’ use of unrestricted submarine warfare was causing ever greater hardships at home in Britain.
General Haig, the British Commander-in-chief, convinced the Government that by attacking in force along the Ypres Salient a drive could be made to the German submarine bases along the coast, thus reducing the huge shipping losses which had resulted in rationing at home. They agreed, but first Haig had to take the Passchendaele Ridge before he could advance. This job he gave to General Plumer.
On 7th June 1917 General Plumer’s 2nd Army, in a well-planned attack, took the southern end of the Ridge around Messines, and then for some seven weeks more Haig readied his forces for the main attack on Passchendaele, while the Germans on top of the Ridge watched from their concrete pillboxes behind barbed wire and readied their new weapon — mustard gas.
The main battle opened on 31st July. Intensive artillery bombardments and torrential rainfall had turned the ground into a quagmire pitted with shell holes full of water so that every step promised death, not just from the German fire and gas but from the glutinous, hungry mud.
The attack floundered and Haig was pressured to stop the offensive. He didn’t until 10th November when Passchendaele village was captured — but at the cost of an estimated 300,000 British casualties. Of those killed some 12,000 are buried at Tyne Cot CWGC Cemetery which sits on the ridge astride the remains of German bunkers.
Today’s visitor to the battlefield should start at Tyne Cot. Here you can count a fraction of the cost and see the battlefield across which the British advanced. This is the largest CWGC cemetery in the world with 11,953 graves, many of them unknown. There is also a huge curved Memorial Wall upon which are the names of almost 35,000 dead from August 1917 to the end of the war. Their bodies were never found.
Among them is the poet, 2nd Lt. William Hamilton, a lecturer in Philosophy at University College, Cape Town, who volunteered in the Coldstream Guards in August 1916,
and who was killed on 12th October 1917. In his bitter War Sonnet No. 1, Hamilton questions how those …who lightly talk of England’s
debt; Who muddle into government and
war… shall meet this greater debt incurred of
reasonable hope outraged… …by the death of the youth whose
golden promise was spilt. Also named here is the poet, Captain Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson MC, West Yorks, (pictured) killed on 9th October 1917. He vividly describes the reality of the guns’ bombardment in the ironically entitled “TwentiethCentury Civilisation”: There’s a roar like a thousand hells
set free, And the riven, tortured ground Sways like a tempest-smitten tree; And the earth shoots up in jets all
around And blows like spray at sea. The trench is soon a hideous mess Of yawning holes and scattered mud And tangled wire and splintered
wood, And some poor shapeless things
you’d guess Were once made up of nerves and
blood But now are no more good Than the tattered sandbags — nay,
far less, For these can still be used again. Another notable poet killed on the first day of the battle was L. C. Hobson whose name is on the Menin Gate, probably the most visited memorial in the world, under which Belgian buglers sound the Last Post at 2000 hours every day of the year in gratitude for the British defence of Belgium.
One verse in Hobson’s “War” summarises tellingly the steady toll of death: Oh! Comrades of the old time The weary months go by, New faces are about me New friends with me to die! Lt. Aidan Chavasse, also on the Menin Gate (together with the names of 54,000 others missing with no known grave from the outbreak of war in August 1914 to 15th August 1917), was the younger brother of Capt. Noel Chavasse, the only double VC who won both the medal and its bar in the First World War. Noel was killed on 4th August during the battle, one month after his brother. His headstone is in Brandhoek New Military CWGC Cemetery.
It is easier to find information about a soldier who did not return than it is for one who survived. But to find out more about those who died there are two particular websites to go to.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission site (www.cwgc.org) is easy to use and self-explanatory but one little-used search can be very useful: finding out if anyone from your home town was killed during the battle of Passchendale.
Typing in www.cwgc.org/findwar-dead.aspx brings up the site page which is used to search. Let us suppose that your name is Davenport and you wish to discover first of all if any of your ancestors, who also had that name, were killed during the war. Put the name Davenport into the “Surname” box, select First World War in the “War” box and click “Search”. You will get around 200 results.
Now let us see how many were killed during the battle of Passchendaele. Put the dates of the battle (31st July – 10th November 1917) into the respective starting and ending “Date of Death” boxes in the “Refine Search” column and click. You will get some 15 results.
Now you decide to see if any came from your home town (say Birmingham). This is the option that is rarely used, though of course you can only get out information that is held by the Commission. Type “Birmingham” in the box labelled “Additional Information” and click the “Refine Search” option again. The number reduces to two!
If any readers find relatives as a result of this sequence that they had not known about before, the authors would love to know (battlefields@ guide-books.co.uk)
The Last Post Association (www. lastpost.be), a self-funding voluntary group which runs the nightly Last Post Ceremony, has an excellent app full of information and interesting facts, such as a day-by-day total of the names to be found on the Menin Gate. While this cannot in any way be an accurate measure of those “Missing” along the whole Western Front, it does offer a likefor-like comparison. The figures given for 31st July, the first day of the Passchendaele battle, are 4,480 names — the previous day there were 117! The 31st July figure is greater than the totals for most of the months during the whole of the war and these men simply disappeared in the mud.
Left: Frank Hurley’s famous image of Australian troops passing through the devastated Chateau Wood on 29th October 1917. Above: A British 18-pounder battery at Boesinghe. Below: The shell-pocked battlefield; Tyne Cot Cemetery.
The headstone of double VC winner Noel Chavasse; the authors holding original bugles, with Last Post Chairman Benoit Mottrie.